Construction Co. Owner, Foreman Convicted After Worker’s Death in Excavation

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Updated May 4, 2023
site of wall and excavation collapse that killed worker in New York City in 2018
New York City firefighters at the scene of a wall collapse that killed Luis Almonte Sanchez on September 12, 2018.
Fire Department of New York

A construction company owner has been convicted of criminally negligent homicide and a foreman of criminal mischief after a worker was killed in an excavation in 2018 in New York City when dirt and debris collapsed on him.

The incident occurred September 12, 2018, when 47-year-old Luis Almonte Sanchez was measuring an area to perform formwork in a 9-foot-deep excavation for an underground parking garage. Part of an adjacent masonry wall and the excavation’s support system collapsed, trapping Sanchez. He was struck by one of the underpinning pin sections, which weighed more than 15,000 pounds, and was buried beneath debris, according to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.

“First responders couldn’t recover Sanchez’s body until the following day due to unstable conditions at the site, which were worsened by significant rain,” the D.A.’s office said.

Jiaxi “Jimmy” Liu, 49, who was the owner and operator of the construction company on the project, WSC Group, was convicted this month of criminally negligent homicide. He also was convicted of fraudulent practices in violation of worker’s compensation laws, fourth-degree city criminal tax fraud and related counts by Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun.

Wilson Garcia Jr., 48, the foreman on the project, was convicted of fourth-degree criminal mischief in relation to Sanchez’s death.

Both men face sentencing April 26. Liu faces a maximum sentence of eight to 16 years in prison, and Garcia faces up to one year in jail, according to the D.A.’s office.

Warnings ignored

The project was at 714 39th Street in Sunset Park, where WSC was hired to demolish a one-story industrial building and replace it with a four-story manufacturing and community facility. The new building would also have a 9-foot-deep underground level for parking.

Before the collapse, WSC Group had been warned about dangerous conditions by workers and a nearby resident, according to the D.A. They reported that the masonry wall beside apartment buildings was moving and needed further bracing and that the patio and garage of a resident who lived beside the rear wall had caved in.

Work, however, continued, with truckloads of dirt continuing to be removed. It was also raining heavily, causing the soil to become more unstable.

“The excavation was too deep, the underpinning system wasn’t installed properly, and safe bracing procedures were not followed,” Gonzalez said in 2019 when announcing the criminal charges.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited WSC in 2019 for one willful and two serious violations, and the company faces fines of $63,647, which it has contested.

Gonzalez said that Liu was responsible for giving instructions to Garcia and other workers on site, and Garcia was the designated “competent person” who was supposed to identify hazards and keep workers safe. The two failed to follow any design plans “leading to hazardous conditions at the site.”

“The death of Luis Almonte Sanchez was a preventable tragedy that would have been avoided if the operator of the construction site followed all safety protocols or heeded warnings about unsafe conditions,” Gonzalez said following Liu and Garcia’s convictions March 2.

Fraud charges

On top of the charges related to Sanchez’s death, WSC lied to the New York State Insurance Fund about its employees and did not file taxes between 2015 and 2018.

Two codefendants previously entered guilty pleas in that case ahead of Liu’s conviction. Jia Rong “Tommy” Liu, 52, of Brooklyn pleaded guilty to petit larceny, and Cindy Chai, 45, of Staten Island, to tax fraud.

The criminal case was investigated by the New York City Department of Investigation, the New York City Department of Buildings and other agencies.

“A worker was needlessly crushed to death by tons of debris because a construction company operator responsible for the construction site chose to ignore basic safety protocols and repeated warnings about the dangers at the site,” said DOI Commissioner Jocelyn E. Strauber. “Today’s conviction, along with the convictions of other defendants in this case, delivers the strong message that failure to follow construction safety laws has serious consequences.”